The longer I am a pastor, the more convinced I become that every person, regardless of her or his situation, is fighting a hidden battle with shame. Shame, the greatest enemy of God’s grace and also the greatest inhibitor of truth, justice and human love, is something that must be addressed if a dysfunctional human community is to become functional, healthy and mutually supportive.
Shame—the terrifying sense that something is deeply wrong with us—keeps us preoccupied with ourselves and inattentive to the needs of others. Shame tells us falsely that we need to fix ourselves before we can focus on serving others. It tells us we must get our act together before we can act on behalf of the poor, the lonely, the oppressed and the marginalized. Before we can give attention and energy to paving paths of flourishing in the developing world, we must first develop our own sense of purpose and our own sense of self. Charity starts at home, we tell ourselves. If we don’t take care of ourselves first, then we won’t be able to care effectively for others. If we don’t get healthy ourselves, we will be limited in our ability to invest in important causes.
In a way, we assume correctly. When Adam and Eve’s shame was exposed in the garden, they both turned immediately inward. Adam shifted his attention away from God and Eve and toward the search for fig leaves to cover himself and to hide his shame. Eve did the same. Man and woman sought independence from God, lost interest in one another’s flourishing and looked out for number one. Adam blamed Eve for their new predicament. Then Adam blamed God. Eve blamed the serpent.
Adam and Eve set the tone for the rest of us. Ever since Eden, every man, woman and child has been facing a hidden battle with shame. The vague sense that there is something deeply wrong with us compels us to hide, blame and run for cover. Left to ourselves, we are restlessly turned inward and desperately committed to some kind of self-salvation strategy. We work hard to create a counter-narrative to the shaming voice within and without.
What if there was a way for the cycle of shame to be broken in our lives? What if there was a way to divorce ourselves from the pressures that culture puts on us to be rich or beautiful or well-respected? What if there was a way for the pressure to be relieved to perform and achieve and measure up in order to be a person of value? What if we no longer felt a need to prove ourselves, to validate our own existence in the world’s eyes and also in our own eyes? What if our secret battle with shame was neutered, freeing us to turn our attention away from ourselves and toward neighbors who are near to us, and also toward neighbors who are on the other side of the world and need our partnership and support? What if there was a way that we, having had our shame undone, could also contribute to the undoing of shame in others?
My greatest joy as a Christian pastor is that I get to tell people that such a remedy exists. When Jesus allowed Himself to be stripped naked, spit upon, taunted, rejected and made nothing on the cross—when He, the one who had nothing to be ashamed of, surrendered to the ruthless, relentless shaming that led to our redemption and healing—He accomplished our liberation from shame.
Because Jesus took on Himself the full freight of our shame, we no longer have to exhaust ourselves with endless and futile efforts to make something of ourselves. We now have an inner resource that can liberate us from preoccupation with self. We now have an inner resource that frees us to treat all people as our equals. We now have an inner resource that endearingly and compellingly invites us to join God in His mission to love.
At an awareness dinner in Nashville, Melinda Gates told a room full of pastors, leaders, culture makers, and influencers why she and her husband, Bill, decided to devote their lives and resources to helping people in the developing world. Her reason is plain and simple and traces back to what she was taught as a child through her Catholic upbringing: Every person is equal. “There is no reason,” Mrs. Gates said, “why a woman in the developing world shouldn’t have health care and education and running water and opportunity just like I do. Because a woman in the developing world is equal to me.”
The notion that every person is equal is one to which any reasonable person will give mental assent. But when we come to understand that Jesus has taken our shame from us, and that because of this we have nothing left to hide, nothing left to fear and nothing left to prove, we become owners of, and not mere assenters to, the notion that every person is equal. Our energies shift from being preoccupied with self to being preoccupied with God and the flourishing of our neighbor.
Because of the way Jesus valued you on the cross, and because you are the image of God, you are among the holiest objects that will ever be presented to God, to your fellow human beings and even to yourself in the mirror. Is this enough, and will this be enough, to relieve you of your own hidden battle with shame? Will it be enough to free you from a love-hindering, tiring preoccupation with self?
Because your neighbors who are near, as well as your neighbors on the other side of the world who need you, are also the image of God and are your equals, you have a privilege and responsibility to participate, as God leads you, in His mission to advance His kingdom in truth, beauty, love and justice on earth … and to every square inch of the earth … as it is in heaven. Is this enough, and will this be enough, to stimulate your imagination as to how you can steward and share your privilege?
May it be so.
Taken from The Mother & Child Project: Raising our Voices for Health and Hope Copyright © 2015, compiled by Hope Through Healing Hands. Use by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.
Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee and author of several books. He also blogs weekly at scottsauls.com, and can be found on social media at @scottsauls.